Advent arrives this weekend, marking the beginning of a new year and opening our season of preparation for Christmas. Like a lot of church nerds, I may be willing to say that Advent is my favorite season of the church year. I am geeked to get out the candles and break out the Advent music
(For those who are curious, here is my Advent playlist)
But Advent can be a confusing time, because on the calendar it coincides with a secular season called “the holidays.” Although they occur at the same time and share some superficial branding elements, Advent and the holiday season are in fact two very different things.
Struggling to tell them apart? Enter the prophet Habakkuk.
In the church, Advent is our season of discontent, a time to feel ill-at-ease, a moment when we measure the long distance between the world we have been promised and the world we as it is.
Advent is driven by Habakkuk’s question: “How long?”
Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:[3b-6], 17-19
1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
5Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
2I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
3God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. 4The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden. 5Before him went pestilence, and plague followed close behind.6He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. The eternal mountains were shattered; along his ancient pathways the everlasting hills sank low. 17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
Habakkuk is one of the Minor Prophets –so called because of the relative brevity of their books when compared to the “major” prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Like Jeremiah (whose work we sampled last week), Habakkuk lives and works during the Babylonian crisis of the 6th century.
Typically, prophets point out the injustice being done by the people, summoning them to repent and return to God. But Habakkuk has a different MO. He addresses himself to God, and demands answers for the injustice of the world. Habakkuk grapples with what the theologians call theodicy –the question of why a good God would allow evil in this world. The prophet puts it this way: 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
And it sounds a lot like an accusation.
The text as presented by the Narrative Lectionary takes us pretty much through the entirety of the book. It breaks out like this:
1:1-14 Habakkuk’s first complaint: God does not act in the face of injustice.
1:5-7 God’s response: I will send the Chaldeans (Babylonians) as my judgement on injustice.
2:1-4 God responds to the prophet: Make the vision plain.
3:[3b-6], 17-19 Concluding hymn of praise.
So what do we learn from Habakkuk about the question of theodicy? And how does it relate to Advent?
Here are some fragmentary thoughts:
Complaining to God about injustice is a biblical form of prayer. Somewhere along the way, some of us may have picked up the idea that talking to God is a lot like talking to a high-ranking elected official. One must be polite and always express acceptable sentiments.
But this is not what a lot of prayer looks like in the Bible. From Abraham dickering with God over the judgement of Sodom to Job pouring out his lament to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, those who have been closest to God have often been the noisiest complainers.
In Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the role of dissatisfaction in fueling work for social transformation: “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the fires of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until they who live on the outskirts of Hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heap of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into the bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.”
This is what biblical justice-seeking looks like: telling the truth about the state of the world and refusing to settle for anything less than all that God has promised.
And Advent serves a particular purpose: to stir up our yearning for the promise of God. Like Habakkuk, we ask, “How long?” In our hymn we pray, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
But we have a part to play. I am intrigued by 2:2: 2Then the Lordanswered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. It seems to me that this verse is often taken out of context and turned into a Harvard Business Review leadership aphorism. Good to great! Be a hedgehog! Make the vision plain!
However, in the context of Habakkuk’s project, this verse suggests something intriguing. We see terrible injustice in the world. We can and we should cry out, complain and lament to God. We can and should join the prophet’s cry: How long? But that is not all that we can do. We can make the vision plain –speak and (more importantly) live in ways that spell out the alternative, that articulate, elucidate and illustrate the nature of the reign of God. Let everyone know what God really wants.
Advent is our season to get ready for the promise of God –by voicing our lament at the current state of the world, by making plain the plans God has for us. It is our time to join in the ancient song.
How long Lord?